Science & Environment

Agency counts cost of 'unprecedented' UK storms

River Parrett meanders through flooded farmland on the Somerset Levels (Image: Environment Agency) Image copyright Environment Agency
Image caption Large swathes of farmland on the Somerset Levels were under flood water for weeks

For the first time in its history, the Environment Agency has assessed the state of all of its flood defences in England following the winter's storms.

One thousand sites were identified as in need of repair, with the unprecedented series of storms causing £135m worth of damage.

Agency staff and members of the armed forces took six weeks to inspect more than 150,000 sites across the country.

To date, 350 defences have been repaired, the Agency said.

Over the winter, a series of powerful storms swept across the UK, resulting in coastal areas being battered by high waves and storm surges.

The Met Office said it was England's wettest winter on record, leaving saturated river systems struggling to cope with the deluge.

"We closed the Thames Barrier 50 times between December and the middle of March," explained Environment Agency director of strategy and investment Pete Fox.

"That is a quarter of all the times the barrier has been closed since it came into operation in 1983. That gives you a sense of how unprecedented the winter was.

"We routinely undertake an assessment of flood walls and other assets after flooding anyway but the extent of the testing of the defences was such that a full assessment was carried out, which has never been done before," he added.

"Logistically, it has been quite a challenge but we achieved it within six weeks with the help of 200 personnel from all the armed forces."

Mr Fox told BBC News said the assessment involved visual inspections, "making sure that we had got the most up-to-date record of what our defences were looking like".

The Agency said that repairs had been completed at a number of locations identified as priority area, including Weymouth, where sea defences were washed away by stormy seas during January and February, and at Greatham Creek, Teesside, where the force of flood water caused a 50m breach in the sea defence.

'Much more to do'

Image copyright Environment Agency
Image caption The Agency hopes to have completed the majority of repairs by winter 2014

"Many of the flood risk management assets damaged in the extreme weather since December have already been repaired, restoring protection, and peace of mind, to many communities across the country," said Environment Agency chief executive Dr Paul Leinster.

But he added: "There is still much more to do, and thanks to the completed inspections we now have a full picture of the condition of all the flood-risk management assets across the country."

Flooding Minister Dan Rogerson said flood defences "took a battering over the winter", prompting the government to make extra resources available.

"We want to see our flood defences back up to full working conditions, which is why we have provided the Environment Agency with an additional £270m to fix and maintain them over the next two years," he said.

As part of the coalition government's policy to cut public expenditure, the Environment Agency - along with other public bodies - saw a reduction in the money it received from Whitehall.

In December, the Agency confirmed that about 1,500 jobs - including flood-protection posts - would be cut as part of a major restructuring of the organisation.

The government announced that it would make extra funds available after thousands of homes and large swathes of farmland were affected by the extensive flooding.

"What the winter storms illustrated was the unpredictable nature of our weather but the government found money at short order, which means we are in a stronger place than we would have been if we did not have that money," observed Mr Fox.

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